Chicory and the South Indian
As RK Narayan once said, I never tire writing about coffee. This is perhaps my fourth article on the subject, but this time it is about an adulterant added to coffee, called chicory (Chichorium Intybus). From that original purpose, it has morphed into an ingredient integral to South Indian coffee and has the potential to trigger many a deep debate over its merits and demerits, much to the amusement of the western onlooker who still believe that pure coffee is the right coffee (never mind the fact that the supposedly pure coffee from major brands has many more additives and chemicals than you would choose to believe). Alas! Chicory never gets its due and is always treated as a step brother, so I guess it is time to try and change the status quo.
I still remember, as a child, I was the one usually sent to buy coffee from the local grinder. My mother would instruct me to say ‘Robusta or Peaberry with 20% chicory’ and my father would pull me aside as I stepped out, and ask me to change the proportion to 25% chicory. This had repeated itself so many times in the past that it now remains as one of those indelible memories etched in this now old head.
Recently, a reader ‘kannurgal’ professed some interesting advice on how to make South Indian style coffee from local US blends. She suggested a couple of options, such as adding Louisiana chicory coffee to Melita coffee in a 2:1 ratio to create a version similar to the typical S Indian blends. Another idea was to buy chicory and grind it with Malabar monsoon coffee. And that thought took me to the plantations in Wynad where I was born, where my dad was practicing medicine in those days. I still recall going to the tea factories, and the smells come wafting back from Mananthawady, though at that time, the coffee plantations were struggling with the widespread effects of the coffee leaf disease.
Just imagine the scene with an avuncular South Indian wearing his dhoti, lounging on his easy chair in his house nestling in between many others in the busy side lanes of Triplicane, not far from Wallajah road, and his pondatti robed in her many meter long silk saree brings him his specially brewed coffee infused with chicory, see how his nostrils twitch as the smell wafts up from the glass! He takes the glass reverently in his right hand, the dowarah in his left and proceeds to transfer the contents from one to the other till the right temperature for its ingestion, into his portly frame, has been reached and a half inch thick foam has formed on the surface. Then he takes a short sip from the steel glass in his right hand (mind it – right hand!) and his eyes close, his spirits lift and his mind drifts to days long gone, usually his younger days. His wife of many moons is now on her way back, but asks…sariyayirikka? Nodding, our man who has been jolted back to reality, stoops left to pick up the Hindu paper which had been cast aside. He will now continue reading S Muthiah’s ‘Madras Miscellany’, masterly writing even today craftily composed in the old fashioned way by the 85 year old Muthiah, on a typewriter….
Coffee has always been a drink with strong history, which waxed and waned in popularity – from being a favorite at times to becoming a banned substance. Now that brings us to an interesting discussion – somebody tried to ban coffee? Sacrilege!! In 1511 coffee was banned in Mecca as the governor Khair Baig believed it promoted radical thinking and augmented mental stimulation (not done!). Soon it was almost banned in Italy as the clergy believed it to be a satanic drink, but Pope Clement ruled otherwise, even going on to say that it should be baptized. In 1623 it was banned in Istanbul and anybody caught drinking it was lashed for the first offence and packed in a leather bag and thrown into the Bosporus to die, for a second offence. Sweden banned it in 1746 and decided that it should be used as a killer potion for death convicts!! In 1675 it (together with sherbet and tea) was banned in Britain. In 1777 it was banned in Prussia as the king decided that it interfered with beer drinking. He said - “It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects and the like amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors.” Needless to say that all these are interesting stories and make great telling on a rainy day with a ‘Cuppa Joe’ in your hand…
But then let’s get back to the subject at hand, and focus on Chicory, which interestingly turned out to be a wartime beverage additive, and a biblical plant with obscure Indian origins! The cultivated chicory plant has a history reaching back beyond Egyptian times. Its bitter leaves were originally used in salads and was found to be particularly useful in treating intestinal worms, and eventually became popular in German medicine for all kinds of ailments from inflamed sinuses to gallstones. In Europe, Chicory was popularized in Austria after Frederick banned coffee itself. And an innkeeper in Brunswick found that its root when dried, ground and roasted made a bitter but tasty substitute for coffee. Medieval monks raised these plants and when coffee was introduced to Europe, the Dutch thought that chicory made a lively addition to coffee. It became very popular as a coffee substitute and adulterant during wars and in prisons, and has been widely used by the French in Napoleonic wars from where its consumption moved on to the French territories in America. Louisiana started to add it to coffee in the 1840’s (some say it came much earlier with the Acadians when they were ousted from Canada) when Coffee imports were curtailed during the civil war.
For the uninitiated, this herb (which btw a form of endive) had a long white root with a bitter juice. If by itself, it is brewed in hot water, all it produces is a bitter, dark drink without the aroma, flavor, body, or caffeine kick of coffee, but when mixed with coffee, well, that’s another matter altogether…
You will be surprised really, to read all the stories about Chicory, a wayside plant with bright blue flowers. While the Dutch still use it for salads, and have tried various methods to get rid of the bitter tastes, the race which picked up where the Austrians left it were the French who developed a taste for chicory during the Napoleonic era, and continued to mix the herb root with their coffee even after. The Creole French as they say, adopted the taste and made it popular in the USA.
Some might wonder why I mentioned it a biblical herb – Well, it is not proven, but it comes from Exodus 12:8 where it is said - And they shall eat that flesh in the night, roast with fire and unleavened bread, and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Experts opine that Chicory from India or the Mediterranean was perhaps one of those bitter herbs, so mentioned. The word 'Chicory' is apparently derived from the Egyptian word 'Ctchorium' and the plant was cultivated as early as 5,000 years ago by Egyptians as a medicinal plant while Greeks and Romans used chicory as a vegetable and in salads. As is mentioned, references to the plant exist in the writings of Horace, Virgil, Ovid, and Pliny, while Galenus gave it the name 'Friend of the Liver', because of its supposed stimulating effect on that organ.
Simmonds explains its introduction in Europe - The manufacture of a factitious coffee from roasted chicory root would seem to have originated in Holland, where it has been used for more than a century. It remained a secret until 1801, when it was introduced into Prance by M. Orban of Liege, and M. Griraud of Homing, a short distance from Yaleneiennes. This root is not superior to many others which possess sweet and mucous principles, but of all the plants which have been proposed as substitutes for coffee, and which, when roasted and steeped in boiling water, yield an infusion resembling the berry, it is the only one which has maintained its ground.
But as the price of coffee rose up and production failed to catch up with demand, clever merchants cheated using chicory as an adulterant. This became rife and in Britain the use of chicory in coffee was banned altogether in 1832, and for many years it was mired in legal wrangles due to all these nefarious traders desiring to profit, but not with any intention to improve the taste of the resulting concoction. Many representations and articles followed.
Charles Dickens writing in ‘Household words’ (Justice to chicory) following the ban of Coffee and Chicory in London- Because we do not like to receive chicory under the name of coffee, it by no means follows that we object to receive chicory in its own name, or that we consider it wrong to marry chicory and coffee to each other; the alliance may be advantageous, only let it not be secret. Secret marriages can scarcely lead to any good. Any stranger reading an order of this kind, and knowing how many poisonous adulterations are familiarly tolerated in this country, would suppose chicory, which must not be kept in a loose state under the same roof with coffee, to be some very dreadful thing, some dietetic gunpowder that grocers use for the undermining of the constitution in this country. In truth it is, however, one of the most harmless substances that ever have been used for the purpose of adulteration, not excepting even water, as it is obtained in London. In the case of all low-priced coffee- of all coffee purchased by the poor, adulteration with chicory yields profit to the grocer, simply because it yields pleasure to the customer. Good chicory and middling coffee dexterously mixed can be sold at the price of bad coffee, and will make a beverage at least twice as good, and possibly more, certainly not less, wholesome.
He continues - By the combination of a little chicory with coffee the flavor of the coffee is not destroyed, but there is added to the infusion a richness of flavor, and a depth of color—a body, which renders it to very many people much more welcome as a beverage. The cheapness of chicory enables a grocer, by the combination of chicory powder with good coffee, to sell a compound which will yield a cup of infinitely better stuff than any pure coffee that can be had at the same price.
Why did Dickens launch his tirade in support of chicory? The history of the legislation upon chicory, so far as it is necessary for an understanding of the order of last August, may be very briefly told. It was provided by an act in 1832, the 43d George 111, c. 129, s. 5, that if any vegetable substance shall be called by the vendor thereof British, or any other name of coffee or cocoa, the article shall be forfeited, and the owner shall be fined one hundred pounds. The said ban continued until 1853.
But chicory was not just for the coffee drinkers, for example it has been part of many other legends. The Wegenwarte story is interesting– it is lore that a German girl waited and waited for her lover who had gone on a voyage, never to return that she eventually took root and turned into the blue Chicory. Others believed that it provided a measure of invisibility when consumed, so much so that warriors afraid of death hung it on banners while going about the medieval crusades, Californian prospectors kept a bit of chicory root in their pockets while digging for gold, and then again it was supposed to help locked boxes, while others said that the woodpecker got its strength by rubbing its beak on chicory stems, as ladies used it as a cosmetic to remove skin blemishes and (apparently) to firm up breasts after childbirth, while those sick used it as a perfect potion to combat jaundice.
I could not help laughing after reading this outrageous remark from a Frenchman - Mizaldus a French Physician and astronomer in the 16th century- If a Woman anoint often her Dugs or Paps with the juice of Succory (chicory), it will make them little, round, and hard; or if they be hanging or bagging, it will draw them together, whereby they shall seem as the dugs of a maid. God! I can’t believe today’s women applying chicory to their dugs and paps!!!!
The impatient may hasten to pipe in with the question - how did the herb, which was lost out over generations to India, come back to India and become popular as an additive? Well, in Mughal Delhi, coffee drinking was popular. Ed Terry writes in 1616- "Many of the people there, who are strict in their religion, drink no wine at all; but they use a Liquor more wholesome than pleasant, they call Coffee; made by a black Seed boiled in water, which turns it almost into the same color, but doth very little alter the taste of the water: notwithstanding it is very good to help digestion, to quicken the spirits, and to cleanse the blood." By 1780 coffee houses had come into vogue in India, a Madras coffee house was opened, and later one called Exchange coffee house had been opened in 1792 at Ft St George.
The British can be seen at work here and many feel it has to do with what they called camp coffee.
Perhaps that was the version which became popular among the general public and as time went by, Chicory got accepted as an additive that makes coffee ‘stronger’ in taste.
Aparna Datta in her fine article traces the coffee route and shows that it was a popular and exotic drink offered in shops near temples which was imbibed by curious men, thus finding its eventual route into the Madras Kitchen. But how? She explains - By 1860, coffee cultivation in the Western Ghats had gained momentum, and by the late 19th century, it may be assumed that apart from the coffee destined for export, some bags of coffee found their way into the domestic market. Facilitated by the railways and orchestrated by enterprising local traders and vendors, coffee moved from road-side stalls into the Tamil home, finding aficionados who roasted their own beans – peaberry preferably – and devised their own unique gadgets and utensils for roasting, grinding, brewing and serving. In the process, they elevated filter coffee into an art form and created a coffee culture that practically defines a community.
Very soon coffee clubs increased and even Iyer coffee clubs came into being in Madras. This Madras version is called ribbon coffee or degree coffee, but that is another subject requiring a long discourse on another day nevertheless, to clarify the former, ribbon coffee or meter coffee is called so due to the meter long ribbon look created by a ‘kappi man’ making it. And how is it in other places? The content of chicory is quite high in Kerala, with the percentage going as high as 47% in many brands, with Kerala and Andhra Pradesh recorded as two the states where people prefer higher blends of chicory.
A little aside – what is peaberry and why is peaberry coffee special? Erin Meister explains that it is one of two in the pods in a coffee bean, smaller, denser and cuter than its twin and a mutated one at that. According to Erin ‘Fans think they taste noticeably sweeter and more flavorful than standard-issue beans; naysayers insist they can't tell the difference. Continuing, she says - Because there's no way to tell from looking at the cherry itself whether there's a single- or double-header inside, these little guys need to be hand-sorted after picking and processing in order to be sold separately. As a result, in many cases the peaberries are sold for roasting right alongside their normal counterparts. Occasionally, growers will hand-select the tiny mutants for special sale, sometimes at a premium—not only because of their taste, but also because of the amount of labor involved, as well as their relative rarity.’
Venkatachalapathy’s book, especially its first chapter is perhaps the most illuminating when it comes top coffee consumption in S India – He explains that the habit of drinking a morning coffee came into being around 1915, replacing the morning gruel or Kanji and even coolies had come to demand it during breaks. So much so, it soon became known as kutti-kal or junior alcohol amongst chaste Gandhians.
Muthiah and Chalapathy quote Pudumaipithan’s writings to demonstrate the holiness of chicory - In Kadavulum Kandasami Pillayum, Lord Siva has an encounter with one Kandasami Pillai of Madras and discusses earthly matters. In one sequence they both enter a coffee club (as the coffee pubs were once called) and God tasting the coffee is extremely taken up with the aroma and taste. He says after sipping it that he felt as though he had tasted Soma Bana itself, and declares, “This is my leelai”. Pillai retorts, “No, it is not your leelai but that of the coffeemaker here, who has used chicory!” God reacts, “What is chicory?” Pillai replies, “It is something like coffee but not coffee! It is actually cheating, like some cheat does in the name of God!”
S. Muthiah remarks- One problem with coffee consumption in India is the preference of the consumer for coffee mixed with chicory and upto a 49 per cent admixture is permitted. He adds - Pure coffee is a thing of the past, even in South India. Coffee purists insist that even the 51:49 regulation is not right and that Chicory is good only for improving profits. They say that the damn root masks the intrinsic properties of coffee, suppresses its aroma and destroys the real flavor. But then again, the content of chicory has become a marketing gimmick for most south Indian brands, proudly upping the percentage as time go by…
Today we have many specialty coffees and the monsoon blend from Kerala (perhaps Nelliyampati or Idukki) is picking up steam, what with the pods swollen by the monsoon moisture and providing a special intriguing mellow aroma. As ace coffee taster Shalini Menon puts it, a good coffee taster should have a long nose and a good tongue. I have along nose and I think a reasonably good tongue, perhaps I should have become a coffee taster (a country cousin became a tea taster!) but then I would have to decry Chicory….
And then again, I like the coffee story about Turkish bridegrooms who were once upon a time required to make a promise during their wedding ceremonies to always provide their new wives with coffee. If they failed to do so, it was grounds for divorce! And one must not forget Beethoven who was a coffee lover, he was so particular about his coffee that he always counted 60 beans (whether he did it with purpose is not clear, for he even fired and then re-hired his maid in a day because he couldn’t figure out how to light up his stove) for each cup when he had his cuppa made.
But nothing to beat RKN when it comes to description of the whole coffee making process or for that matter Shoba Narayanan with her reminiscences in Monsoon Diary, all stuff which are recommended for serious coffee enthusiasts..
A bit about Coffee estates in Wynaad – Quoting Waddington, In Wynaad coffee cultivation was first started by military officials. The first plantation was started by a military official at Mananthavady, known as Captain Bevan, who was in charge of the 27th Regiment of the Madras Native Infantry of the East India Company. He bought coffee plants from Anjarakkandy and it grew well. Because of this successful experiment, the then-collector of Malabar W. Shefield encouraged the cultivation by sending Anjarakkandy plants to Wayanad. But the largescale cultivation proved a failure during the period, because of the lack of technical knowledge regarding the process of cultivation. Agents of Parry and Company, while on their way to Baba Budan hills in Bangalore, passed through Wayanad and were struck by the flourishing coffee plants in Wayanad. They were impressed by the growth of the trees and the quantity of the crop. Immediately, they made arrangements to start a coffee plantation near Mananthavady in North Wayanad. Within a few years several entrepreneurs started estates in Mananthavady. Glasson, Richmond and Morris were the pioneers among them.
Then came the gold rush - see my article on it and after that debacle and the leaf disease, tea emerged as a popular beverage, with high demand in Britain, slowly displacing coffee.
Notwithstanding the great benefits of regular or adulterated coffee, an enterprising company has recently launched something called Ayurvedic Roast - a coffee substitute which borrows from both the American tradition of using roasted barley, rye, and chicory, and the Indian Ayurvedic system of health by adding the traditional herbs of ashwagandha, shatavari, and brahmi.
Well well….Not for me though…..
Household Words: A Weekly Journal, Volume 6 – Charles dickens
In those days there was no coffee- AR Venkatachalapathy
Herbs of the Bible - Allan A. Swenson
Dictionary of Plant Lore - D.C. Watts
Coffee and Chicory - Peter Lund Simmonds
A Connoisseurs book of Indian coffee – Coffee board & Aparna Datta